Last week, Microsoft unveiled its new Surface 2 tablet, which is a full revamp of last year's Surface with Windows RT. The new Surface 2, which is currently available for pre-order – and due to ship on 21 October – will surely tempt tablet buyers with its updated operating system, faster processor, and included software and services.
But it's not purely a case of old versus new, because the previous Surface RT tablet is still being sold, and benefits from a significant price cut and a few software upgrades of its own. If you're thinking about picking up a Surface tablet, we're here to help with a complete comparison of these two devices.
They say not to judge a book by its cover, but the chassis design is a good starting point for a product comparison. The new Surface 2 still looks like a part of the family with the same angular design and bevelled edges, but there are a few stark differences. Where the Surface RT was clad in stealthy black, the new Surface 2 has a bare metal finish, showing off the VaporMg magnesium alloy chassis.
Put the two tablets side by side, and you may notice a few more subtle differences. The new Surface 2 is thinner, shaving 0.5mm from the Surface RT's already slim 9.4mm thickness. Microsoft also claims that it has trimmed the weight slightly, with the new model dropping 5 grams. While that is a measurable difference, it’s not going to be a noticeable one.
What you will notice regularly, however, is the improved kickstand. Built into the back of the tablet and almost seamlessly integrated into the chassis design, the kickstand is made of the same VaporMg magnesium alloy, and provides a simple solution for using the tablet with a keyboard for productivity. The kickstand was a prominent feature on the previous Surface RT, but has been enhanced on the Surface 2 with a new dual-position hinge, letting you adjust between two different angles instead of just one. The second angle is optimised for either table top use by taller customers, or for more comfortable use on your lap.
The original Surface RT's 10.6in touchscreen was somewhat disappointing when it launched, with only a 1,366 x 768 resolution. In the Surface 2, the resolution has been bumped up to a much nicer 1,920 x 1,080, providing 1080p picture quality. Designed for frequent one-handed use, the Surface RT and Surface 2 support five-finger multi-touch.
Like a lot of tablets, the Surface RT sported two built-in cameras, front and back. The two cameras offer 720p video capture, with the rear camera angled for use while leaning back against the kickstand. The new Surface 2 offers a similar two camera setup, but now features 1080p video capture, with a 3.5-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel camera in the back.
While there are some distinct differences on the outside of the two tablets, the most significant changes are inside. The original Surface RT was outfitted with a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of RAM. The Surface 2, on the other hand, is equipped with Nvidia's new Tegra 4 (T40) mobile processor, a 1.7GHz ARM quad-core CPU boasting 72 graphics cores. It's also paired with 2GB of RAM. The change in hardware makes the new Surface 2 noticeably faster (thanks to a higher clock speed) and it should deliver better visuals and gaming thanks to the enhanced graphics hardware. The tablets are also equipped with Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and low-energy Bluetooth 4.0.
Both new and old Surface tablets come in 32GB or 64GB varieties. The 32GB of storage offered on either base model may not be enough for those who want to fill their tablet with music and movies – Windows RT takes up about 16GB all on its own. If you want to expand the storage capacity of the tablet, however, the Surface RT and the Surface 2 offer a microSD card slot, letting you swap multiple cards in and out, and supporting up to 64GB of extra storage.
The Surface RT is outfitted with a microHDMI and full-size USB 2.0 ports in addition to the proprietary keyboard docking connector. The Surface 2 has the same basic port selection, but upgrades to SuperSpeed USB 3.0, which will support faster external storage and devices that require higher data transfer speeds.
Equipped with a 31.5 Wh battery, the original Surface RT had a claimed battery life of 8 hours for mixed activity, which equated to 7 hours and 45 minutes in our video rundown test. Thanks to the new energy efficient hardware, Microsoft claims that the Surface 2 will provide up to 10 hours of battery life during video playback, although we’ll have to confirm that figure with our own testing when we get a review model.
The Surface RT and the Surface 2 come with Windows RT, a light version of Windows 8 designed for use on ARM processors. Windows RT offers a somewhat familiar Windows experience, centred on the Windows 8 Modern UI, and support for apps from the Windows Store, but it won't run legacy software from Windows 7 or Windows XP, and there's no support for current x86 programs. The new Surface 2 and the older Surface RT (starting 21 October) will be sold with the updated Windows RT 8.1, which incorporates many of the interface tweaks seen in Windows 8.1 on laptops and desktops.
Along with the new version of Windows RT, Microsoft has updated the tablet version of its popular productivity suite, Office RT 2013. The Office suite includes RT-friendly versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, and has been expanded to include Outlook. While this new and improved Office suite will be available on both models, the Surface 2 gets a couple of extra perks. Purchasers get a complimentary one year "Best of Skype" subscription, which includes international calling and free Wi-Fi through Skype-branded hotspots. The Surface 2 is also bundled with 200GB of SkyDrive cloud storage for two years. Cloud storage is increasingly a necessity on tablets, as the slim devices have limited local storage, and cloud storage also makes it easier to transfer files back and forth with a standard laptop or desktop.
The app selection through the Windows Store is also significantly improved since the debut of the Surface RT a year ago. The Windows Store now boasts some 100,000 apps, including Windows RT versions of many of the most popular iOS and Android apps, as well as RT-friendly versions of many Windows programs. The app selection is constantly evolving, but because the same apps and services are available on both models of the Surface, this isn't really a differentiator.
Microsoft also updated the accessory selection for the Surface, including the flexible keyboard covers – you know, the ones seen snapping into place during complex dance routines in all of those Surface ads. That magnetic docking connection is just as sturdy and impressive as it ever was, but the new keyboards are improved thanks to even slimmer designs and enhanced sensitivity. While the new covers look great, they are also backwards compatible with the Surface RT.
Looking at the old and new Surface tablets solely in terms of hardware and performance, it's easy to say that the Surface 2 is the better of the two. With a slimmer, lighter design, better hardware and a number of new features and services, it appears to handily top last year's Surface RT.
But that's only half of the picture. Microsoft has shrewdly decided not only to drop the price of its new RT-infused tablets, but also to continue selling the original Surface RT at a steep discount. It's a strategy that makes both tablets a viable option for shoppers, with the Surface RT priced to court the value shopper.
The Surface RT, which was originally priced at £399 for the base 32GB model, now retails at £279, with the 64GB version pitched at £359. That's low enough to tempt a lot of hold outs, and with the new Windows RT 8.1 and expanded Office RT offerings, the cheaper Surface RT is worth looking at if you're on the fence concerning Microsoft's forays into the tablet world.
But even the Surface 2, with its superior specs, comes in at a lower price than expected. The Surface 2 now starts at £359 for the 32GB model (£439 for 64GB), undercutting the original launch price of the Surface RT by £40. In many ways, the new Surface 2 looks like the sort of product that Microsoft should have launched to begin with, boasting hardware that impresses and a bundled selection of software and services that add significant value to the burgeoning Microsoft tablet.
We'll be able to make some firmer statements about the Surface 2 soon enough, when we’ve had the chance to fully test and review it. However, for the time being, the decision between the old Surface RT and the new Surface 2 looks to be largely a question of price.
For more Surface spec comparisons, check out our article which pits the Surface 2 against the iPad, and our look at the original Surface Pro versus the Surface Pro 2. You might also want to read our piece on what the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 offer businesses.
Microsoft Surface RT
Microsoft Surface 2
1,366 x 768 pixels
1,920 x 1080 pixels
Processor and battery
Nvidia Tegra 3
Nvidia Tegra 4
7 hrs 45 m (as tested)
Storage and memory
32 / 64GB
32 / 64GB
275 x 172 x 9.39mm
275 x 173 x 8.9mm
Windows RT 8.1